Sir John and the Knights of the Long Table

Eleven of us live here at beautiful Schamelot, and we have a small 20 acre farm of chickens, emus, two dogs, 13 or so cats and a cockateil named Sassafrass.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Catholic Tradition of St. Nicholas

Let's just get right to the point. Santa Claus, the jolly old elf, is a distortion of St. Nicholas, Catholic Bishop of Myra, by folks who didn't/don't believe in honoring or asking for the intercession of the saints. So why are my Catholic children still getting presents from Santa under the Christmas trees on Christmas morning? Well, it's just cultural, I guess. But I've had it with my Catholic heritage taking a back seat to the un-Catholic culture we live in! Why, it's not even Christian, anymore. It's getting to be just plain godless. Am I going to continue to go with the flow when the populace votes to change the name Christmas, which might offend Jews, Muslims, Wiccans, etc. to Giftsmas? NEVER! So this year I've decided to reclaim a few more Catholic traditions (just like we've done by raising our family in the Traditional Latin Mass) and St. Nicholas is doing his thing on his feast day, instead of on Christmas Eve like the rest of the nation.

We've said our prayers and asked him if he could please bring his simple little gifts on the night of December 5th, instead of sometime around 3 a.m., after midnight Mass, on December 25th. (We believe in St. Nicholas just like we believe in St. Anthony, and we pray to him this time of year. It's as much through his intercession that our children receive presents as it's through St. Anthony's intercession that I find my lost keys after asking for his help.) I don't think he'll have a problem with it at all, since he only has to make the long trip once, and he doesn't have to be out so late, waiting for all the children to get in bed after midnight Mass.

All we need to do is put out the stockings before going to bed December 5th, and during the night he'll fill them with Clementines, nuts, maybe a little chocolate, and a present.

We're even going to prepare a feast in his honor that day. Since he really was Greek (Myra was a Greek town during the time in which he lived), we're having Moussaka, a Greek salad with oranges (one of his symbols is gold balls or coins), and Baklava for dessert. (I've included the recipes at the end of this post.)

I don't really have a problem with gift giving, so long as it's in the proper context. I can give you a gift any day of the year, just because I love you. I was out and I saw something I thought you'd like, or something you needed, and I got it for you, no strings attached. The problem this time of year is that we feel obligated to give gifts and so we find ourselves buying just stuff to stick under the tree that really may have very little significance to us or to the one we're giving it to. We run out and buy the first thing someone says he wants, before someone else can get it, because we just want to have something to give, and don't want to take too long thinking about it. At least that's the trap I've encountered frequently in the past. Well, I'd really rather have nothing than have someone spending money on just another piece of junk for me to donate to the Goodwill after 9months.

The Christian tradition of gift giving began with the birth of Christ, when the three Magi traveled hundreds of miles to bring to the Christ Child the most precious gifts available to them: Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.

While I don't deny that this tradition has been grossly distorted in our overly commercialized and materialistic culture, I think to go to the opposite extreme may be as great a loss to the Christian tradition as was incurred by the Church when the late pope dispensed with wearing the Papal Tiara!

But some traditions are better able to enrich our lives when their origins are more thoroughly understood. The Magi brought three gifts, one for His Kingship, one for His Divinity and one for His Humanity. St. Nicholas gave gifts to those in need, and La Befana (Italy), or Babushka (Russia), gave three gifts like the Magi. These are the predominant influences in the gift giving tradition we have continued in our family. This is one of my favorite Christmas poems, and sums it up quite nicely...

A Legend from Russia

Babushka, the Grandmother, snug in her room,
Sat nodding and nodding over her loom,

Sat suppered and snug with no desire
But a welcoming bed and an ample fire

When out of the winter’s rush and roar
Came shepherds knocking upon her door,

“Grandmother, Grandmother, old and wise,
In Bethlehem’s barn a princeling lies;

“Lies Mother and Child where oxen feed.
Hurry, Babushka, to nurse their need.”

Babushka listened, but made no stir.
She thought of the sheets turned down for her,

Of shutters latched and the larder dressed
And her bones that ached for rest.

“Tomorrow,” she muttered. “Wait till then.”
But sternly the shepherds knocked again.

“Grandmother, Grandmother, rich and skilled,
Then send but a kindly basket filled

“With comforting gifts, with meat or bread,
And we will carry it in your stead.”

Babushka listened, nodding anew.
“Tomorrow,” she murmured, “Tomorrow will do.

“I’ll bring the best from my cupboard’s store,
The shepherds knocked no more.

Babushka slept though her dreams were troubled.
At dawn while the porridge bubbled,

She packed a basket brimming with sweet
Loaves and oranges, cakes and meat,

A shawl for the Lady, soft as June,
For the Child in the Crib a silver spoon,

Rattles and toys an ivory game,
But the Stable was empty when she came.

So now with provender weighted down
She wanders the world from town to town

At Christmas time, though the winds are shrill,
Through brier and brush, over heath and hill,
Seeking the Manger still.

And wheresoever a good child sleeps,
Dreaming of day, Babushka creeps

Silently, hopefully, up the stair
And leaves three gifts from her basket there—

One to marvel at, one to enjoy,
And one for the kingly Boy.

This is why St. Nicholas gives gifts to good children, those who behave as the Christ Child did. We also have never felt conscience pangs at telling the children that St. Nicholas (we stuck with him rather than one of the other Christmas visitors for cultural reasons) brings the presents, since it is as much through his influence and intercession that our children receive gifts at Christmas time, as it is through the intercession of St. Anthony that we find lost objects after praying to him.

Anyway, if you stop to think about it, there are lots of "things" we need that don't necessarily cost any money at all, or at least they're not things you can buy from a catalog, or off a store shelf. Tickets to the Symphony, or a season pass to a theme park; a coupon for a dinner date (with an individual child), or a trip to the Art Gallery or the Zoo. Take lots of pictures, keep souvenir ticket stubs, corks, menus, etc. and make a scrapbook page or just keep them in a box to remember the day by.

Of course, there are times when you really do think of the perfect gift and you have to brave the traffic and crowds to get it. There's nothing wrong with that. The point is, think outside the box and don't be afraid to do something a little different, even if it's different for each child--as long as it's "perfect" for each child.

I'm sort of rambling now. Not real sure where all these ideas are leading me. Just know that there's a huge difference between "Giftsmas" and "Christmas with gifts." I guess I just haven't quite figured out how to say it...

Here are the recipes I mentioned!


3 eggplants, peeled and cut
lengthwise into 1/2 inch thick
1 tablespoon butter
1 pound lean ground beef
salt to taste
ground black pepper to taste
2 onions, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon fines herbs
2 tablespoons dried parsley

1/2 cup butter
1 (8 ounce) can tomato sauce
1/2 cup red wine
1 egg, beaten
1/4 cup olive oil
1 1/2 cups freshly grated
Parmesan cheese

1/2 cup butter
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
4 cups hot milk
salt to taste
ground white pepper, to taste
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg


1. Lay the slices of eggplant on paper towels, sprinkle lightly with salt, and set aside for 30 minutes to draw out the moisture. Then in a skillet over high heat, heat the olive oil. Quickly fry the eggplant until browned. Set aside on paper towels to drain.
2. In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter and add the ground beef, salt and pepper to taste, onions, and garlic. After the beef is browned, sprinkle in the cinnamon, nutmeg, fines herbs and parsley. Pour in the tomato sauce and wine, and mix well. Simmer for 20 minutes. Allow to cool, and then stir in beaten egg.
3. To make the bechamel sauce, begin by scalding the milk in a saucepan. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Whisk in flour until smooth. Lower heat; gradually pour in the hot milk, whisking constantly until it thickens. Season with salt, and white pepper.
4. Arrange a layer of eggplant in a greased 9x13 inch baking dish. Cover eggplant with all of the meat mixture, and then sprinkle 1/2 cup of Parmesan cheese over the meat. Cover with remaining eggplant, and sprinkle another 1/2 cup of cheese on top. Pour the bechamel sauce over the top, and sprinkle with the nutmeg. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese.
5. Bake for 1 hour at 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).

Greek Lettuce, Herb and Orange Salad


1 small head Romaine lettuce, cut into ½-inch strips
1 fennel bulb, trimmed, stalks removed
6 large radishes, trimmed, halved and sliced
1 naval orange, skin and pith removed, flesh cut into a one-inch dice
1/2 cup snipped fresh dill
12 Moroccan olives, pitted
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 Tbs sherry vinegar
½ tsp crushed fennel seed
½ tsp rose peppercorns
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste


Wash and spin-dry the lettuce. Cut the fennel in half lengthwise then cut each half horizontally into thin slices. Combine the lettuce, fennel, radishes, orange bits, dill and olives in a serving bowl. Whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, fennel seed, peppercorns, salt and black pepper. Pour over the salad, toss and serve.



1 (16 ounce) package phyllo
1 pound chopped nuts
1 cup butter
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 cup water
1 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup honey


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F(175 degrees C). Butter the bottoms and sides of a 9x13 inch pan.
2. Chop nuts and toss with cinnamon. Set aside. Unroll phyllo dough. Cut whole stack in half to fit pan. Cover phyllo with a dampened cloth to keep from drying out as you work. Place two sheets of dough in pan, butter thoroughly. Repeat until you have 8 sheets layered. Sprinkle 2 - 3 tablespoons of nut mixture on top. Top with two sheets of dough, butter, nuts, layering as you go. The top layer should be about 6 - 8 sheets deep.
3. Using a sharp knife cut into diamond or square shapes all the way to the bottom of the pan. You may cut into 4 long rows the make diagonal cuts. Bake for about 50 minutes until baklava is golden and crisp.
4. Make sauce while baklava is baking. Boil sugar and water until sugar is melted. Add vanilla and honey. Simmer for about 20 minutes.
5. Remove baklava from oven and immediately spoon sauce over it. Let cool. Serve in cupcake papers. This freezes well. Leave it uncovered as it gets soggy if it is wrapped up.

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